I’d rather be whole than good

Or would I? Let’s flip the statement on its head and see what we find

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Whole than good

“I’d rather be whole than good” – Carl Jung.

I just came across this quote today, and I find it rather striking. I have in the past studied Jung very briefly, found him quite interesting actually, but am by no means an expert on Jungian thought. Nor do I have detailed knowledge of all the different therapeutic approaches out there (though at one stage I did study the major counselling approaches in a broad brush stroke fashion).

So any thoughts I have about this quote may have nothing to do with what Jung intended. But in this post modern world it is the reader who gives meaning to what he reads, not necessarily the author. So for better or for worse, I have some opinions on the subject!

I’m guessing that the focus of the quote has to do with our attempts at people pleasing. That we forego who we are in an attempt to be socially acceptable and to avoid confrontation or domination. But there are plenty of self help books that speak about being true to yourself (and it’s also something I refer to regularly in my blogs) so I would rather look at it from a different point of view.

If being good is potentially an obstacle to being whole (Jung seems to imply this) then how prepared are you to forego being good in order to be whole?

Just how important is being whole to you? For me, being whole would be either at the top of the tree of very close to it. And by “whole” I am assuming it means that we are comfortable with who we are, that we are true to our own views and beliefs, that we are not lashed by self doubt and self hatred. There are undoubtedly more accurate definitions, but let’s run with this for now.

What price would you pay to gain this wholeness? And how much of your “goodness” gets in the way? Questions abound. Am I only good so I can get something in return, or am I genuinely good on the inside? Would I continue to be good if I didn’t need to? Would I continue to be good even if it got in the way of my own happiness? (and by this I don’t mean the kind of sacrifice that leaves you with a warm glow – I mean an act that would benefit others and genuinely not benefit you).

Huge questions really, and something philosophers, theologians  and psychologists have argued over and will continue to argue over. (Freud, for example saw all humans as primarily selfish, something Christian theologians would furiously agree with but perhaps for different reasons).

For all my weaknesses, I am essentially a good man at heart. I want my family to be happy and well, and would make sacrifices to achieve this. I genuinely want others to be happy and would make lesser sacrifices, most definitely less often, to help them. But I am decidedly not “whole”, and in fact I doubt really anyone is or ever will be (though it is something worthy of aspiring to, and a journey well worth the effort).

But if I really thought I could be whole, or close to it, by becoming the kind of person that frees me from any obligation to be good, would I? Would I be prepared to sacrifice the good of others in order to be whole? (Freud would say yes without hesitation, and for all his faults I have a lot of time for Freud).

Some might argue that being whole automatically means others will benefit (because our true colours are beautiful), and I have a lot of sympathy for that view. But that’s not the point of the argument here. The argument is that in becoming whole I may become less “good” (ie in the way I relate to others) because I am free to ignore their expectations. That I would deliberately put my own sense of self (to thine own self be true) above doing good for others.

I’m reminded of Fredrich Nietchze, a philosopher from the 1800’s who argued, amongst other things, for a “superman”, a person so true to himself that he would be willing to inflict pain on others in order to exercise his own will, and not feel any internal distress about it.

Are we looking at a psychopath or sociopath then? As far as I can understand, Nietzsche’s superman was no psychopath. And I’m pretty sure psychopaths and sociopaths aren’t very “whole” beings – they are just dedicated to getting their own way and have no interest in others. So what am I talking about?

I’m doing a fair bit of guesswork here, but I see someone who is not indifferent to others, but refuses to let his or her sense of wholeness be forfeited in order or help someone. If they can help someone, they will, but not at the cost of losing their own internal mojo. And in not acting for others, they aren’t plagued by self doubt.

If that’s true, then my tentative answer to this is “Yes I would trade goodness for being whole”. But my gut level reason for saying this is terribly flawed. I can’t get away from the feeling that I would be able to help others more if I was more in control of and comfortable with myself. Much like the airplane instructions in the event of a disaster – you put the airmask over yourself before you turn to help others, whether they be your children or a stranger.

My answer has gaping holes in its logic. It is still focussed on others! Am I doing it so I can be better for them (No!) or am I doing it for me so that I can find rest for my soul (Yes!). So why is helping others still a reason? Methinks I just can’t get away from that part of defining who I am. I can’t imagine myself being whole and not good. And yet, with a nod to Freud, I am not a selfless person (not by any margin,. just ask my wife!)

It’s like I’m cheating. I say yes to being whole, but just can’t shake loose a sense of obligation to others. I wonder if somehow ‘being good’ has been etched indelibly on my psyche. It’s as if there’s some law of the universe imprinted on my soul – or is it simply some kind of conditioning that I have been unwittingly exposed to during my life?

Or perhaps I’m just trying to deal with reality. I do live in a world of others and at least partly for others, and if I am at peace with myself I would naturally find myself able to give. As a matter of fact, Arthur Maslow, who posits that we have several layers of motivation to our behaviour, has as at the very top of his hierarchy a level called “self actualisation” which includes among other things, giving back to others.

So I can’t get away from the notion of living responsibly with others (at least I can’t, but maybe it’s different for you?). I can’t separate the notion of being whole with being good. But I can separate the fear-driven attempts to please others – that would certainly go.

If I was whole, would others understand my behaviour? Maybe not. Maybe their expectation of good would be so different from mine that I would appear self centred or heartless at least some of the time. But you surely know people who are sometimes heartless and there’s a good chance you still like them. Maybe even secretly you admire their strength of character, just as long as you are not the one who suffers from their occasional unwillingness to help.

Well there you have it. I am by no means certain of anything I have just said (can you tell?!). Just found it interesting (and fun) to muse on. What about you? What do you think?

Author: Terry Lewis

I'm a guy in his 50's who thought it might be fun to write about day to day issues - the stuff that life is made of. It's helped me think and develop some deeper perspectives. I enjoyed it so much I thought I might start posting it in a blog, and here we are! I intend to mix it up as much as I can. I am a thinking kind of guy so the majority of my posts will probably have some kernel of truth or (hopefully) wisdom nestled in there somewhere. But I also hope to have some light hearted posts as well. Too much thinking can make life pretty dull! Anyway, hope you like it.

6 thoughts on “I’d rather be whole than good”

  1. Hi Terry, you dissected the quote very well. I say that being whole does mean neglecting being good to others. Thats what i felt by reading it. We all would love to be ourselves. There is a clause then our happiness sometimes depend upon others too. I may stop being good. ..so may everybody but we cannot forget we all are dependent on each other. Today I might become selfish but tomorrow I will want the help of somebody and there you are! That somebody is equally selfish being whole!what will you do? It is no good. Be good and you will receive good. That is how the world works otherwise all will become evil. Being whole come from being good. Thats what i think.

  2. The thought that occurred to me halfway into your essay was the analogy of the airplane oxygen mask — and in the next paragraph you brought up that example yourself! It’s the best metaphor I can think of when I ponder this perplexing topic, because sometimes taking care of myself *requires* that I act in a way that seems selfish to others (I’ll tell you sometime about what’s it’s like to be the only introvert in a family of EXTREME “extries”). But ultimately I don’t think Jung is telling us that being whole and being good are always mutually exclusive. Rather, I think he’s saying that when it comes down to making a choice he would *rather* be whole than good — which suggests that there are times when perhaps he chooses to be good, because it’s the right thing to do in that particular circumstance. Who knows, though? I may have to go take a long walk and ponder this one for a bit. 🙂

  3. Thought provoking for sure. I think I would need definitions on whole and good before I could even try and think clearly and even then…
    What a challenging quote! I like Carl Jung very much.

    1. You’re absolutely right about definitions. Any philosopher worth his salt would most likely write volumes on both, with claim and counterclaim etc. I believe whole books have been devoted to “The notion of the Good”

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